Passive Aggression: Foregrounding the Object

I’m a day late, but here I am Taking Back the Blog. Today’s rant: the passive voice.

When it comes to reports of men abusing and oppressing women, the passive voice prevails.

Women are discriminated against
Women are paid less
Women are objectified
Women are groped
Women are sexually harrassed
Women are exploited
Women are threatened
Women are assaulted
Women are abused
Women are raped

No big deal, right? It’s just a bit of linguistic flipping, with neutral semantic effect, surely? No. This ostensibly innocent bit of subject-camouflage has real consequences. If you can’t see it, you can’t fight it, and you can’t blame it. The perpetrators of violence are rendered invisible. The culprits are shoved beyond the frame.

Passive voice: man/raped/woman

When someone is hurt, the first thing people do is look for someone to blame. When the perpetrator subject is veiled in this narrative sleight-of-hand, the free-floating responsibility seems to find somewhere to land. In the case of gendered injury, all too often, people slap this blame onto the object.

The “raped woman”.

The verb “rape” attaches to the object, and in the logical next step, is even adjectivised. “Raped” morphs smoothly from a descriptor of an actively committed crime to an attribute of the victim. And so, you end up with BBC headlines like this one:

“SHOULD WOMEN BE MORE RESPONSIBLE?”

“… these women are behaving irresponsibly and putting themselves at risk of being sexually assaulted or raped.”

UCLA researchers[1] found that agent (subject) deletion in reports of sexual violence has three outcomes:

(a) it minises the perception of the agent;
(b) it alters the attribution of blame; and
(c) it alters the attribution of harm.

“When men read rape and battery stories written in the passive voice, they attributed less blame to the perpetrator – and less harm to the victim – than for the active-voice versions. The effect was specific to sexual violence: verb voice did not alter how men viewed murders or robberies.”

Rapist-deletion and raped-adjectivisation keeps the “raped woman” at the centre of the rape narrative. Abuse and rape becomes something that is about women, and women alone. It’s a short hop from there to victim-blaming. Before long, you get asshats flailing about women “turning themselves into victims” or deliberately adopting a “victim mentality”, as in the case of the intertubes fallout after someone terrorised tech blogger Kathy Sierra with rape and murder threats. Sierra was re-abused, over and over, for not “being responsible”. For not filtering her email, for not “taking it like a man”, for daring to be a woman in a man’s world, for using her real name, and above all, for “letting herself” be a victim. Yes, she did it to herself, apparently. The abuser was summarily disappeared, and who fell into his empty subject position? The abused woman, of course. Twisty sums up:

“Thus, even some feminists think we ought to criticize Kathy Sierra for not taking her reaming like a man. We recognize that victimhood does not equal personhood, but beyond that we’re constrained by some dim twilight denial. We can’t believe, even though it is true, that victimhood the only available outcome, so we say insane things like, “don’t act like a victim, you idiot!”

Kathy Sierra was threatened for the crime of Writing While Female (have I mentioned yet that you should be reading Kate Harding?), just as women and girls everywhere are abused, raped and killed for the crime of Being Female In Public, Being Female In Their Own Home, or Being a Female Child. What we need to re-introduce to the conversation is the reality that someone is doing the threatening, the abusing, the raping, the killing.

So – what does it look like when we re-reveal the subjects in discourse around gendered violence? How difficult is it to flip the words back to Subj-V-Obj position? How does this feel for you, as a reader? I pulled this International Women’s Day letter out of Hansard.

“For many of us, what some women across the world are subjected to or forced to do, simply because of their gender, is incomprehensible. […]
World wide, a quarter of all women are raped during their lifetime and, in a number of countries, women who have been raped are sometimes killed by their own family to preserve the family’s honour. Depending on the country, 25 to 75 per cent of women are regularly beaten at home and more than 120 million girls and women have undergone female genital mutilation. […]
The report says that, out of three girls sitting in classrooms worldwide learning to read and write, one will suffer violence directed at her simply because she is female. […]
Of three women sitting in a market, selling their crops, one will be attacked-most likely by her intimate partner-and hurt so severely she may no longer be able to provide for her family. […]
Throughout the world, this violence will be repeated: Globally, one in three women will be raped, beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime.[…]
In fact, in the ACT, women are overwhelmingly the majority of victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Statistics show that one in three women over the age of 45 has experienced domestic violence and 86 per cent of all reported sexual assaults during 2001 were perpetrated against women.”

Anyone want to have a go re-activising this litany of terror? Let me know how it feels to read the version with the subjects restored.

[1] Syntax, Semantics, and Sexual Violence: Agency and the Passive Voice
Nancy M Henley et al
Journal of Language and Social Psychology, Vol. 14, No. 1-2, 60-84 (1995)
Summary at Psychology Today
Original abstract



Categories: gender & feminism, language

Tags: , ,

88 replies

  1. Re-activized for your convenience. Let me know what you think!

    “For many of us, what some women across the world are subjected to or forced to do, simply because of their gender, is incomprehensible. ”
    For many of us, what men across the world subject women to, or force women to do, simply because they are women, is incomprehensible.
    World wide, a quarter of all women are raped during their lifetime and, in a number of countries, women who have been raped are sometimes killed by their own family to preserve the family’s honour. Depending on the country, 25 to 75 per cent of women are regularly beaten at home and more than 120 million girls and women have undergone female genital mutilation. ”
    Men rape throughout the world, to such an extent that, for any given woman, the chance that a man will rape her is approximately one in four. In a number of countries, after a man rapes someone, she might be killed by her own family to ‘preserve the family’s honour’. Depending on the country, 25 to 75 percent of men regularly beat their spouses and other female relations in their home, and more than 120 million girls and women have suffered the mutilation of their genitals, a practice which creates and embodies much of the worst and most hideous of patriarchal oppression.
    The report says that, out of three girls sitting in classrooms worldwide learning to read and write, one will suffer violence directed at her simply because she is female. [“¦]
    The report says that, out of three girls sitting in classrooms worldwide learning to read and write, a man or men will abuse her simply because, as a female, she is regarded by many, if not most, men, as an acceptable potential victim.
    Of three women sitting in a market, selling their crops, one will be attacked-most likely by her intimate partner-and hurt so severely she may no longer be able to provide for her family. [“¦]
    Of three women sitting in a market, selling their crops, a man — most likely her intimate partner — will attack one of them; when he does, he may well beat her so severely that she is no longer able to provide the necessities of life for her family. Which, of course, the man who did the beating won’t even think about doing.
    Throughout the world, this violence will be repeated: Globally, one in three women will be raped, beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime.[“¦]
    Throughout the world, men will perpetuate this violence: Globally, so many men are rapists, abusers, and sociopaths, so many men victimize women, that one in three women will be so victimized — raped by a man, beaten by a man, coerced into sex by a man, or otherwise abused by a man.
    In fact, in the ACT, women are overwhelmingly the majority of victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Statistics show that one in three women over the age of 45 has experienced domestic violence and 86 per cent of all reported sexual assaults during 2001 were perpetrated against women.”
    In fact, in the ACT, men overwhelmingly choose to inflict sexual assault and domestic violence on women. Statistics show that, in a domestic setting, men have beaten one in three women over the age of 45, and that, of sexual assaults which occurred during 2001, 86 percent were instances of a man assaulting — raping, or attempting to rape — a woman*.
    * Unfortunately, we did not bother collecting or examining statistics which would enable us to determine, among rapists, attempted rapists, and sexual assault perpetrators, the percentage of men and women — but, after all, we’re talking about how women are made to suffer here, not who makes them do the suffering. Why should we worry about who perpetrates it when we’re so busy making it look like the victim’s to blame for her own mistreatment?

  2. Regarding how it feels to read the version with the men added back into it — bloody infuriating, I’d have to say.
    I mean, you read the original version and — even if you know good and damned well who’s doing the harm, who the rapists in the ‘women who have been raped’ actually are, the tone in which it’s written makes it sound very abstract, very academic. If I hadn’t enough understanding of rape and abuse to read between the lines, it’d have produced no more elevation of affect in me than would, say, a physics paper, or a programming manual.
    Then, reading the modified version — wholly different, when you can see right there in every line who’s really to blame. Being male myself, reading the re-activized version really brings it home: this is what I can do, this is what I’m fighting.

  3. This is a great post. It really made me think about the way language is used in describing sexual violence to reinforce the idea of women-as-objects who should have worked harder to prevent being a victim, while acting as if there were no real perpetrator. I work in a Writing Center, and I want to share this with my co-workers.

  4. Two contrasting examples, of opening paragraphs from the same newspaper:
    Heading: Nightclubber shot in stomach

    DETECTIVES have launched a hunt for two men who fled a Melbourne nightclub after gunning down a patron at the weekend.

    Heading: Cattle prod accused in court:

    A WOMAN has undergone emergency surgery after her eyes were gouged in a horrific attack outside a hotel in north west Victoria over the weekend.

    To be fair, by the time we get to the use of the cattle prod in this story, the active voice is used to describe the man assaulting the woman.
    I’ll have to research it, but every now and then football players come up on charges of eye-gouging, and I wonder whether such incidents are usually described passively or actively.

  5. The SMH’s report of the eye-gouging attack is an interesting exercise in active/passive flip-flop.
    Headline: Man faces court over eye-gouging charges

    A Victorian man has appeared in court accused of gouging out one of his partner’s eyes in a late night attack outside a country pub over the weekend.

    Activised!

    Weidlich, 30, was arrested on Saturday morning shortly after his alleged victim was attacked with an electric cattle prod and had her eyes gouged following an argument outside the Malmsbury Hotel, Malmsbury, 95km north west of Melbourne.

    Passivised, but understandably and necessarily regarding the general background to the charges before the court.

    Police allege the 28-year-old woman was attacked with the cattle prod before a struggle in which one of her eyes was clawed out of its socket.

    Unnecessary passivisation now that the charges are being detailed! Reactivised:
    Police allege the 30-year-old man attacked the woman with a cattle-prod before he struggled with her and clawed one of her eyes out of its socket.

  6. Aaron:

    I mean, you read the original version and “” even if you know good and damned well who’s doing the harm, who the rapists in the “women who have been raped’ actually are, the tone in which it’s written makes it sound very abstract, very academic.

    It really does create a distance, doesn’t it? I’ve been trying to figure out why. Foregrounding the injured person, at a first glance, would seem to bring to the fore their hurt and their pain, but for some reason it doesn’t seem to do that very well. Have I gone half numb from reading this over and over? That’s sad and scary and fury-producing.
    This is hard to express, but I’ll have a go at it. For me, the re-activised version brings the violence foreward – highlights the immediacy of the actual commission of the crimes. I wonder if the passive has the effect of tweaking time perceptions (without actually changing verb tense) – “the woman was raped” seems to leave me contemplating the aftermath more, whereas “the man raped the woman” brings the act itself to the fore in my mind.

  7. Scruffy:

    It really made me think about the way language is used in describing sexual violence to reinforce the idea of women-as-objects who should have worked harder to prevent being a victim, while acting as if there were no real perpetrator. I work in a Writing Center, and I want to share this with my co-workers.

    Please do. Thanks for the compliment.

  8. I was just reading today’s Washington Post article on sexualised cyberbullying.
    There are a couple of examples of active language in there, but it’s swamped by the passivisation. Picking out some of the passive formations:

    A female freelance writer who blogged about the pornography industry was threatened with rape.

    Kathy Sierra […] became a target of anonymous online attacks

    As women gain visibility in the blogosphere, they are targets of sexual harassment and threats

    But women, who make up about half the online community, are singled out in more starkly sexually threatening terms

    female participants received 25 times as many sexually explicit and malicious messages as males.

    the proportion of Internet users who took part in chats and discussion groups plunged […] entirely because of the exodus of women. The study attributed the trend to “sensitivity to worrisome behavior in chat rooms.”

    anonymity online has allowed “a lot of those dark prejudices towards women to surface.”

    The noose photo appeared next, on a site that sprang up to harass her.

    On yet another Web site came the muzzle photo, which struck her as if she were being smothered.

    ”That’s when I got pushed over the edge,” she said.

    Two factors can contribute to the vitriol, experts said: blogging in a male-dominated field, such as technology, and achieving a degree of prominence.

    (GAHHH!)

    Now, she said, blogs risk becoming “nastified,” at least in the comment zones.

    ”There’s a whole bunch of women who are being intimidated,” she said. They include academics, professional programmers and other women normally unafraid to speak their minds.

  9. I’m not sure if I’m imagining this, but when something that reads ‘a woman was attacked and sexually assaulted today etc etc’ is changed to ‘a man attacked and sexually assaulted etc etc’ it seems to me to generalise it and make it seem like it is something that all men could do, rather than just the one who actually carried out the assault. Am I making sense? To me it seems to read as all men are potentially threats which seems to be a very bad message to be putting out there, whereas if you put in something like ‘an unknown man today attacked …’ it seems, to me, to specify more that it was one man, rather than men in general.
    That is not to say that I don’t think the passification of language and the ‘blaming the victim’ isn’t an issue, but I think we have to be careful how we rephrase it so that all men don’t feel blamed for the actions of one man (there is enough of them out there already feeling like that) and we aren’t transmitting the message that this is normal behaviour for a man.
    What do you think?

  10. I don’t think you’re imagining it, Mindy: I think that changing from a passive to an active description is so unusual when discussing gendered violence that it is perceived as confronting.
    But do you get the same reaction of some general statement about all men from the sentence “a man gunned down a nightclub patron”? If not then why not, do you think?
    I know you’re questioning rather than advocating, but it seems hypocritical to justify a double standard for describing violence depending on the gender of the victim as somehow crucial to not alienating men.

  11. Thanks for getting this out there. Very interesting, and quite scary at the same time.
    The results could be quite horrifying, but you could also apply this difference in perspective to the statistics referred to in the Hansard (Eg. “Depending on the country, XX to YY per cent of men regularly inflict violence upon members of their household”).

  12. Tigtog, you are absolutely correct, I don’t get the same reaction. Hypocritical, maybe. But I was suggesting is that the wording be changed slightly to include a descriptor of the man, even if it is ‘unknown’, because that isolates it as one person, not men in general and I think that is very important.
    As for alienating men I think this is an important issue that shouldn’t be forgotten. We need them onside and effectively calling them all rapists is not the way to do it. Someone once said even that ‘all men rape all women’ which to my mind is complete crap, although probably completely out of context – I’m happy to be educated, and that’s not the sort of input we need into this discussion.

  13. I agree that it does the feminist movement no good to alienate men, but I see the recasting of gendered violence reports into the active voice as an opportunity for education for both men and women. [edited to add – I want to make it clear that it’s the societal view that I think is hypocritical, not Mindy’s personal attitude]
    If it makes no sense to make objections that reports that “a man robbed a bank” are accusations that all men are potential robbers, then it simply doesn’t logically make sense to make an objection that “a man attacked a woman” is an accusation against all men: it’s such a simple and irrefutable example of the double standard.
    The fact that the two statements don’t seem to carry equal weight goes to show just how much acculturation has gone into our views of gendered violence, this view that men don’t have control over going apeshit, that women are the ones who control whether men go apeshit on them (which when you think about it for even a second is obviously insane).
    As to the quote you mention, I’m not sure which one you’ve heard but Dworkin certainly had a lot to say about penetrative sex which has been gleefully misquoted ever since, and then of course there is the outright false attribution of something similiar to McKinnon (it was actually written by another feminist opposing her ideologically as an alleged summary of McKinnon’s anti-pornography views).

  14. Others are talking about the passive-voice victim-blaming approach of the WaPo:
    Virtual Dystopia in The Stranger
    Online, Offline, Everywhere at Shakesville
    WaPo Laments Weak Women Bloggers Who Can’t Receive Threats As If They Are Nothing at abyss2hope

  15. This fascinating. This is important. This needs to be repeated.
    I may just be too exhausted, (it’s stressful getting up at 1pm) but for easier reading next time, “flip” the entire story under the entire original. Harder my for my current brain to comprehend when you do it a paragraph at a time.
    I’ve resorted to chewing coffee beans, I need caffeine so bad. Don’t worry, they’re covered in chocolate.

  16. Thanks mAndrea!
    Sorry I haven’t been engaging with your comments, Mindy – I went to a couple of times, but tigtog had already said exactly what I wanted to say, only better. (It’s the FemBlog EchoChamber(tm)!!) So I refrained.

  17. No problem at all Lauredhel.

  18. Looks like the “all men…” thing is indeed an invention
    http://www.snopes.com/quotes/mackinno.htm

  19. I should have known that Barbara Mikkelsen would have done something on that myth.
    Catherine MacKinnon made a kickarse speech at Harvard recently [link].

  20. mAndrea: Apologies; the way I had it in my editor was with the original italicized, but I was careless when pasting and didn’t realize this comment box had not been rich-text-ified. (So much for whizzy Firefox extensions.) Even so, it’d probably be easier to read when not interleaved. Thanks!
    Mindy: If rewriting news articles and summaries of statistics and so forth and so on so that they describe men who rape women, instead of just women who are raped — if that makes the men who read it uneasy, then that’s just fine by me. Hell, I’m a man, and it made me uneasy while I was doing it, wondering just how the hell many men it takes to rape and molest and beat and mutilate and kill and buy and sell all these women. It’s the kind of thing that ought to make a guy think jeez, I can understand why ‘all men are potential rapists’.
    But let them feel blamed. Let them feel responsible, or like they ought to be responsible. Let them feel ashamed. It’s a reasonable reaction; it’s shameful that so many men act so badly, and even more a shame that so many other men let them get away with it. Let men distrust themselves and other men just a little bit more than they do now, and let them question their own motives and other men’s too, just a bit more than they do now. Maybe then, the next time they set out to tell women how they should change themselves in order to avoid predatory men, it’ll occur to them to wonder why there are so many predatory men in the first place, and to think that maybe they should be busier working to do something about that than they are at telling women how to live.
    That’s how I think about it, anyway.

  21. A headline on the Age site today is in the active: “Man gropes breastfeeding mother.”

  22. Aaron, I agree totally I just can’t see anyone controlling the MSM taking up the baton. That’s why I suggested a softly softly catchee monkey approach rather than confronting people outright. Work from within and all that.

  23. A headline on the Age site today is in the active: “Man gropes breastfeeding mother.”

    I’ve seen a few different headlines on this one. At one point, news.com.au came out with “Breastfeeding mum in sex attack”. A quick Google news search also reveals “Breastfeeding mum groped” and “Sex attack mum speaks out”.

  24. In Which It’s Not The Victim’s Fault, But It’s Still A Woman To Blame:
    If anyone’s still inhabiting this thread, there’s a followup in the Herald Sun.

    ”Mr Chkhaidem […] confessed to frequenting baby changing rooms at Broadmeadows, Northland, Airport West and Highpoint shopping centres to watch women breastfeed, saying it eased the pain after his girlfriend had an abortion, the court heard.”

  25. Right, so groping a breastfeeding mother eased the pain how?
    Actually, I think this also highlights another issue which is often hidden, and that is the fact that there is no widely advertised counselling service for blokes so they know where to turn when they need help. Whether or not he supported his girlfriend’s decision, he obviously needs help dealing with his grief. If there was something more widely available, maybe this guy could get some help and the poor woman who was just trying to feed her baby in private may not have been attacked.

  26. One difference between “a man robbed a Norfolk bank yesterday” and “a man raped a Norfolk woman yesterday” is that rape is far more common, even if men don’t like to admit it. Using passive voice is obviously a way to exempt all men from blame and to make it easier to blame the woman as Lauredhel mentioned.
    This is going to get me in trouble, but why do so many feminists go to such lengths to excuse men in general? Yes, some men don’t mistreat women themselves, and a very small few actively work for change, but it seems to me that the reality is that most men passively encourage other men to mistreat women by remaining silent when other men make jokes and promote anti-woman myths.
    Either that, or they’re just stupid. How many brain cells does it take to realize that laughing at jokes about rape or minimizing all the facts, research, studies which come out regarding women’s inequality is just another way to minimize the problem and continue the injustice?
    I can see being skeptical about one study, but we can have study after after study, and still they find an excuse to deny a problem exists or otherwise exempt their responsibility for contributing to the atmosphere where anti-woman myths prevail.
    There’s a HISTORY of women being oppressed – it’s not like it didn’t happen. So then they like to pretend that history stopped yesterday, and today all those little random acts of injustices committed against women are isolated cases which do not constitute a PATTERN OF SYSTEMATIC OPPRESSION WHICH HASN’T STOPPED.
    When one particular man gets backed into a corner on the issue, he’ll act like women oppressed themselves, that whatever happened to her is her failure to do or not do something. The men never have anything to do with it all, and how dare you suggest it!
    It seems to me like it’s either a case of WILLFUL blindness or stupidity, or some combination thereof… on the part of THE VAST MAJORITY OF MEN. And feminists are so afraid of hurting the widdle man’s fweelings that we’ll dance around the issue.
    …As if their feelings is more important than our equality and safety.
    Been meaning to look at those goofy 12-step programs and the psychology behind it. Believe it goes something like:
    you have to admit that a problem exists.
    you have to admit your responsibility for doing the thang.
    you have to have a desire to change.
    you have to examine the reasons why you did the thang.
    you have to have alternative behaviors to replace the thang.
    So feminists don’t want to point blank say: hey men, 98% of you are behaving like an ASSHOLE.
    Why the denial? What do feminists gain from not holding men accountable? If pointing out the obvious makes me a bitch, then so be it.
    And what the hell is so wrong with saying: You know what guys? I’ve looked around, at all the crap some of you pull against women, and the excuses the rest of you use to let it continue and you know what? I’M SICK OF YOUR SHIT. GET THE FUCK AWAY FROM ME UNTIL YOU CAN ACT LIKE A GODDAMN HUMAN BEING INSTEAD OF AN ANIMAL.
    For some reason we can only hold them accountable up to a point, and for god’s sake we’ve got to be polite about it or risk hurting their feelings or or or… possibly risk losing their cooperation BECAUSE THEIR FEELINGS WERE HURT. and they might get mad and kill us in retaliation or something. If that’s the reasoning that feminist use, then we mights as well admit that men are nothing more than animals, and treat them accordingly.

  27. mAndrea: Can I just say right on!

  28. Hey Aaron, pretty good, but you missed this one:
    “In a number of countries, after a man rapes someone, she might be killed by her own family to “preserve the family’s honour’”
    How about
    In a number of countries, after a man rapes someone, her male family members might kill her

  29. This is going to get me in trouble, but why do so many feminists go to such lengths to excuse men in general?

    Hmm? I’m a feminist, and I don’t excuse misogynists – I call ‘em on their bs. I just find the extremeness of this statement hard to believe:

    Yes, some men don’t mistreat women themselves, and a very small few actively work for change, but it seems to me that the reality is that most men passively encourage other men to mistreat women

    “Some men” don’t mistreat women? “Most men” encourage other men to mistreat women? We live in very different worlds, mAndrea. 98%? Really? Cites, please?

    One difference between “a man robbed a Norfolk bank yesterday” and “a man raped a Norfolk woman yesterday” is that rape is far more common, even if men don’t like to admit it.

    Rape is far more common than what? In my medium-to-high crime rate neighbourhood in Portland, OR, robbery is 5 times more common than rape, as is assault. (Since your quotes sounded like headlines I assumed you were talking about reported rapes; if not, my apologies.)
    I’m not trying to minimize the problem; my fear is rhetoric unsupported by facts hurts the cause. I have long been a foe of the passive voice, a proponent of gender-neutral language (instead of assuming all people of unknown gender are male), and I firmly believe that men have a lot to fix.

  30. #1 Just because someone “says” they profess a certain ideology, doesn’t mean I’m gullible enough to believe it. Some women are so desperate to have a relationship with a particular man that they will make excuses for his – and their own – behavior.
    #2 If most men didn’t implicitly condone the continuance of misogynistic attitudes, then misogyny wouldn’t exist. It’s kinda simple, really.
    #3 “Mistreat” = “hold view of women as inferior”
    #4 Denial takes many forms. It’s a protective mechanism designed to alleviate distress when confronted with a painful reality. It’s easier to believe “things aren’t so bad” than to admit a sinking suspicion that men will never change, or take practically forever to do so.
    #5 Rape is an everyday occurrence. Research published yesterday by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and Home Office Inspectorates estimates that of the 50,000 rapes thought to occur each year, between 75% and 95% are never reported. And almost a third of reported cases recorded by police as “no crime” should have been properly investigated as rape.
    If a man commits a rape, then he has, on average, a less than 1% chance of being convicted.
    [link]
    —–
    Only an estimated 20% of rapes are ever even reported to police (Walby and Allen, 2004)
    ——-
    Recent research on boys’ attitudes to sexual violence shows a disturbingly high support for the acceptability of forcing a girl into sex in certain situations. In a Brisbane study of Year Nine boys, nearly one in three believed that it is “okay for a boy to hold a girl down and force her to have sexual intercourse” if she has “led him on”, while one in five boys were unsure. One quarter of the boys thought that it was acceptable to force a girl to have sex if she gets him sexually excited, and another fifth were unsure [Domestic Violence Resource Centre, 1992]. In a 1997 survey by Family Planning Australia, nearly a third of the 15×25 year old males interviewed agreed that it was “okay for a male to force a female to have sex” in one or more of a range of situations [Family Planning Australia, 1997].
    In 1984 Malamuth reported that in several studies an average of about 35% of male students indicated some likelihood of raping a woman (1984, p. 22). This figure has decreased to 25% – 30% since then, for reasons Malamuth cannot know (personal communication, July 1986).

    The consequences of sexual abuse are all made all the more problematic since there is evidence that only about 2%-8% of undergraduate females who have been raped seek help from a crisis center, counselor or a physician(Koss, 1988; Pirog-Good & Stets, 1989).

    In one major national study, victims
    reported rapes to police in only 16% of cases (Kilpatrick, Edmunds, & Seymour, 1992).
    One of two Norwegian men believe women are to blame if they are raped
    —–
    Any other questions?

  31. May I interrupt here with a semantics question?
    Is it more proper in this context to say that oppression of women is “systematic” or “systemic”?
    “Systematic” implies an active conspiracy against women.
    “Systemic”, implies that it’s built into the system and requires active thought and participation to change, but no conspiracy keeping it going.
    The problem with the oppression of women is it is so pervasive, historic, and complete that most people who perpetrate it (both men and women) don’t know it’s happening.

  32. Is it more proper in this context to say that oppression of women is “systematic” or “systemic”?

    I think it’s both. For some people and some situations (like some of these linguistic features), it’s systemic.
    However, I think the oppression is conscious and systematic far, far more often than we’d like to believe. Just have a quick peek at the comments thread of any story about women or feminism in Digg for one example; and at any public debate around reproductive freedoms for another. Then go to Twisty’s place and have a look at the video of a group of men stoning a girl to death.

  33. Thank you. I agree with your examples of each.

  34. I guess I wouldn’t call someone a feminist if she excused men for misogyny. I would also use the phrase “hold view of women as inferior” instead of the word “mistreat” if that’s what I really meant. And I would never deny that rape is an underreported everyday occurrence. I would also not deny that rape and other gender-related crimes and devaluations, have trended downward since the women’s movement started. I do not believe “things aren’t so bad”; I believe that things are slowly getting better, in part because I am making them better.

  35. I was reminded of this post yesterday, and am glad to see that comments are still open. The b/f was talking about Russian poetry, and how much easier it is to do some amazing lingustic things in Russian, because of the way the relationship between subject and object are wound into the individual words. That got me wondering, is this sort of patriarchal focus on the object prevalent in other languages? It’s obviously not completely due to the English language, as all the examples of other crimes using the active voice clearly demonstrate. But does anyone have enough familiarity with non-English journalism to know if this sort of crap permeates other languages? Or is it a unique weirdeness of the English language that allows it to proliferate?

  36. Aaron says:

    World wide, a quarter of all women are raped during their lifetime and, in a number of countries, women who have been raped are sometimes killed by their own family to preserve the family’s honour. Depending on the country, 25 to 75 per cent of women are regularly beaten at home and more than 120 million girls and women have undergone female genital mutilation. [“¦]
    Men rape throughout the world, to such an extent that, for any given woman, the chance that a man will rape her is approximately one in four. In a number of countries, after a man rapes someone, she might be killed by her own family to “preserve the family’s honour’. Depending on the country, 25 to 75 percent of men regularly beat their spouses and other female relations in their home, and more than 120 million girls and women have suffered the mutilation of their genitals, a practice which creates and embodies much of the worst and most hideous of patriarchal oppression.

    In fact, the rewritten graf still has passives in it. Going further:
    “Men rape throughout the world, to such an extent that, for any given woman, the chance that a man will rape her is approximately one in four. In a number of countries, after a man rapes someone, her own family might kill her to ‘preserve the family’s honour’. …”

  37. “But does anyone have enough familiarity with non-English journalism to know if this sort of crap permeates other languages? Or is it a unique weirdeness of the English language that allows it to proliferate?”
    Djinna:
    Non-native English speaker here. My mother language is Portuguese and, believe me, it’s not a unique weirdness of the English language. Passive voice used to somehow “diminish the blow” of violence, especially sexual violence (against women, men and children alike), is used more often than not. It’s considered “polite” and “educated” as opposed to the “harshness” of the active voice. Therefore, and unfortunately, the news vehicles that tend to use active voice in such situations are sensationalist blood-dripping-from-the-cover ones that only do it for “shock value” in the attempt to sell more, not as a way to educate people.

  38. Very interesting, Yare. The idea that the passive voice is more “polite” and “educated” is also an English tradition as well (eg.”It is a truth universally acknowledged that…”). Yet, contrast that with a contemporary similiar sentiment in the active voice (”We hold these truths to be self-evident…”) which certainly is not accused of lacking either elegance or precision.
    Obviously, when properly analysed by thee and me, it is not merely shifting from the passive to the active voice that makes the sensationalist publications uncouth, it is the choice of emotionally-weighted adjectives and hyperbolic turns of phrase.
    I wonder whose purposes it serves to conflate the two?

  39. Thanks, Yare. I’ve just gone back to some basic composition webpages to see what they say about the passive voice and agent deletion.
    College of DuPage English:

    In the English 1101 HyperTextBook, I described the writing problems associated with passive voice and nominalization. Here I would like you to review those pages and pay close attention to how the writer can hide the agent, the person responsible for the action expressed by the verb. By hiding the agent, the writer is able to protect someone, or to deceive the reader into thinking another person is responsible by hiding the real agent.

    Purdue English:

    Passive voice makes sense when the agent performing the action is obvious, unimportant, or unknown or when a writer wishes to postpone mentioning the agent until the last part of the sentence or to avoid mentioning the agent at all. The passive voice is effective in such circumstances because it highlights the action and what is acted upon rather than the agent performing the action.

    The Purdue page also mentions the (somewhat controversial) use of the passive voice in scientific writing, just as I was taught back in the 1980s.
    Some account for the science passive by saying that the writer doesn’t have to specifically identify the scientist involved; others claim it is a way of “upgrading” the agent to a God-like position; others that it is a way of making the statement seem more objective, more detached.

  40. What a shame I didn’t find this post earlier. Fantastic piece, tigtog.
    How about women being groped by men while they’re breastfeeding?

  41. Yes, Lauredhel did a great job with this post, Crowlie.
    Obviously, we’re appalled by men who grope women while they are breastfeeding.

  42. I find it very interesting that Mindy reads “a man” as being “all men”:
    “when something that reads ‘a woman was attacked and sexually assaulted today etc etc’ is changed to ‘a man attacked and sexually assaulted etc etc’ it seems to me to generalise it and make it seem like it is something that all men could do, rather than just the one who actually carried out the assault.”
    I know tigtog already discussed, but I think it’s worth exploring further.
    Does “a woman was sexually assulted today” depict *all* women as victims of sexual violence? If not, how does “a man raped a woman” depict *all* men as perpetrators of sexual violence?
    As far as I’m concerned there is a grammatical and logical difference between “one man” and “all men”, just as there is between “one woman” and “all women”. I honestly just do not see how “a man” can be read as “all men”.
    And this:
    “As for alienating men I think this is an important issue that shouldn’t be forgotten. We need them onside and effectively calling them all rapists is not the way to do it.”
    Refer previous point – saying “a man raped a woman” is not calling all men rapists. Secondly, I can’t help thinking that it’s not about needing men “onside”. Feminism by its nature attempts to redistribute the power historically held by the patriarchy. Of course someone’s going to be pissed if you try to take their power away – they’re not going to be “onside” (yes, individuals may be, but as a system, they ain’t never going to be).

  43. I was thinking about it in terms of such lovely phrases as “all men rape all women (the saying of which is an urban myth)”, and ‘any man is a potential rapist’ which does brand all men. It doesn’t excuse the passive voice used in the articles, but I think it does call for careful wording so that men who do subscribe to feminist principles don’t feel tarred with the same brush. I don’t mean it to be ‘oh noes who will think of the men’ but more ‘I’m married to a good man who would never condone this type of behaviour much less indulge in it, and raising my son to be respectful of women and I don’t appreciate people telling me that either of them are rapists just because of their gender’.
    Not calling all men rapists is not about taking their power away, it’s about being seen as reasonable and rational beings who believe that most men aren’t rapists. I believe that a lot of men do take it personally when they see a headline about a man raping a woman. Even on this blog some male commenters take generalisations about men very personally, even when the comment is, to my eyes, not specifically directed at them.
    I don’t have an alternative way of talking about rape that still gets the point across that it was a man involved. Maybe just say rapist?
    To engage with this part of your comment:

    Does “a woman was sexually assulted today” depict *all* women as victims of sexual violence? If not, how does “a man raped a woman” depict *all* men as perpetrators of sexual violence?

    I think it depicts all women as potential victims of sexual violence, just as all men are depicted as potential perpetrators of that violence.

  44. But saying “a man raped a woman” is NOT, by definition, a generalisation about all men.
    “I’m married to a good man who would never condone this type of behaviour much less indulge in it, and raising my son to be respectful of women and I don’t appreciate people telling me that either of them are rapists just because of their gender.”
    To me, this sounds very much like a case of Not my Nigel
    But in any case, generalising from “a man raped a woman” to “all men are potential rapists and all women potential victims of sexual assault” isn’t in any way logically justified. “A man raped a woman” does not say that your husband, brother, father or son is a rapist.
    “I believe that a lot of men do take it personally when they see a headline about a man raping a woman. ”
    I’m interested that your focus here is on *men* taking a headline like that personally (and in fact, I wonder whether that doesn’t have something to do with them, rather than the headline) rather than on *women* taking the headline personally because we are potentially victims of a similar crime.
    It’s also interesting that I don’t think there are many women who would “take it personally” if they read a headline saying “A woman stabs a man” – in that we would not assume that the inference of the article is that all women are potential murderers. I also don’t think a man would “take it personally” if he read the headline “A man set an abandoned warehouse on fire” – he would not assume that the article’s implication was that all men are potential arsonists.
    So perhaps if men are “taking it personally” it’s not because the object of the headline is to make them feel like they’re all potential rapists, it’s because they do, to whatever extent, participate in rape culture.

  45. Rebekka I disagree very strongly that all men participate in ‘rape culture’. That’s offensive, and trivialising in that it negates the difference in magnitude between actual literal rape and things said or assented to by annoying prats – who still don’t comprise the whole male population.

  46. I didn’t say “all men” participate in rape culture. You’re putting words in my mouth.
    I said, and I think on re-reading I was quite clear in my meaning, that IF men are “taking personally” a headline that says “A man rapes a woman”, i.e. interpreting the headline (as discussed in previous comments) to mean that ALL men are potential rapists, then perhaps that’s because the man – the specific man – who is interpreting the words to mean something quite other than their literal meaning, is reading that particular meaning into the words because HE (specific man, not men in general) is a participant in rape culture.
    “That’s offensive, and trivialising in that it negates the difference in magnitude between actual literal rape and things said or assented to by annoying prats – who still don’t comprise the whole male population.”
    Rape culture is about a continuum of behaviour, not about saying being whistled at (for e.g.) is the same as being raped – a culture in which women are subjected to “harmless” acts of sexism, from “annoying prats” NORMALISES women being treated as sexual objects, and as less valuable than men, which in turn make rape and abuse seem more acceptable.
    A good example of “rape culture” is blaming the victim – she’d been drinking, she went home with him, she was wearing slutty clothes, she was promiscuous, she was a prostitute. These things make rape seem more acceptable – certainly not to ALL men, but there’s enough evidence to suggest that they certainly make rape seem more acceptable to a LOT of men – there was an Amnesty International poll in Britain, for example, that found:
    – 26% said that they thought a women was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was wearing sexy or revealing clothing.
    – 22% held the same view if a woman had had many sexual partners.
    – 8% believed that a woman was totally responsible for being raped if she’d had many sexual partners.
    -30% said that a woman was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was drunk
    -37% held the same view if the woman had failed to clearly say “no” to the man.
    A THIRD of people are blaming the victim – and so perpetuating a culture where raping women is acceptable in some circumstances.
    (There was an even worse poll by Amnesty in Norway, where they only asked men, and almost half thought there were some circumstances in which if a woman was raped, it’s her own fault. I can’t find the link though).
    Yes, only an “annoying prat” would suggest that if a woman wears a low-cut top she’s asking for it (and in the context of him actually not being engaged in raping a woman at that point, his comment is certainly not as bad as perpetuating actual violence against women) – but I’m sure you can see how vocalising these beliefs contributes to a culture in which it is acceptable to rape a woman if she’s wearing revealing clothing.

  47. Sorry, haven’t kicked in here, mostly because Rebekka’s doing a sterling job.
    Any man who reads “A man raped a woman in Perth yesterday” as “All men are rapists” and gets all snitty about it has got a nasty case of the NickGruens.
    “A man raped a woman” is “careful wording”.

  48. Sterling job Rebekka. I shall stfu now.

  49. To me, this sounds very much like a case of Not my Nigel
    Yes, god forbid I trust my husband not to rape women when I’m not there.

  50. That last comment, Mindy, was so far outside what I was saying it’s not even funny. I’ve never for a moment suggested that all men are rapists, or even that all men contribute to rape culture. I don’t believe my partner does, and I’m sure if you don’t believe your partner does, then he doesn’t.
    But if you honestly think that the “nice men” in your life, including your husband, would be offended because they think a headline that says “A man raped a woman” is implying that THEY are a rapist, then you/they seriously need to have a good hard look at WHY.

  51. I apologise for my last comment. I didn’t differentiate between the sexist behaviour the link discussed and actually being a rapist, and I should have.
    I agree we should look at the mindset that thinks headlines about rape that include the word men mean all men. I think we also need to acknowledge that it’s a mindset that exists out there and that is perhaps why the media doesn’t use headlines like “A man raped a woman”. What my first thought is, upon reading such a headline, ‘a man – it could be any man, I could be sitting next to him on the bus right now’ panic response. And I could, but it’s highly unlikely as my brain soon realises. And for me that is the rub of it. I don’t like to think that someone could be looking at my husband/brother/son etc wondering if they are a rapist, even for a second, and I wonder if some men feel the same. Waht I suppose I’m trying to work out is – is it just laziness on the part of the headline writers, or is it more to do with how people react to the headline?
    As I said earlier, even some male commenters on this blog take comments personally that are (to me) obviously not directed personally at them. I think it’s part of the ‘it’s all about me’ thing that we see often on topics like this.

  52. “Waht I suppose I’m trying to work out is – is it just laziness on the part of the headline writers, or is it more to do with how people react to the headline?”
    It’s neither laziness nor a respect for how people react to a headline, it’s the entrenched values of patriarchy that put a woman at the centre of rape, rather than the perpetrator.

  53. Spot on, Mindy. The “I could be sitting next to a rapist!” side of things is interesting.
    And I think there’s a big cultural disconnect here. On the one hand, women are constantly told that when in public, they SHOULD be acting as though they could be sitting next to/walking in front of/in the same room as a rapist. We’re told to dress certain ways, behave certain ways, engage in a whole pile of restrictive protective behaviours.
    But at the same time, we’re not supposed to ever admit to ourselves or to others that the man we know, we’re chatting to, that serves our drinks, or teaches our children, the actual man himself, could be a rapist. “Rapists” are supposed to be this big monolithic deviant unchangeable amorphous danger, an Other of extreme proportions. Not actual people – people who exist in the world when they’re not raping, people who interact with other people, people who make choices.

  54. That’s what has come up in law – the disconnect between the ways in which we talk about rapists – as the psychotic evil predatory monster, deranged and waiting in the bushes, and then this excusing of ‘just your regular guy’ who *has* raped, you know, the ‘boys will be boys’ stuff, the lads out drinking and getting carried away, the *decent guy who got carried away* or was *confused*, the ‘drunk man who siezed an opportunity’ (oh yeah, it’s actually been said).
    To not discuss the fact that *men* do rape, lots of them do – just look at the stats (it’s by far and away generally committed by a ‘regular guy’, someone no one would have suspected than by the disturbed stranger) gives these attitudes hidden spaces in which to breed and gain strength.
    The one caveat I have with this is sometimes it is used to make it sound as though women feeling this fear while out in public are being *silly* since it’s far less often the stranger scenario – it still happens often enough and brutally enough for it to be a constant awareness, a constant (and reasonable) concern.
    It certainly must be difficult for men to be walking and realise a woman is afraid of them, to feel ashamed and embarrassed knowing that women walking alone view them as a potential threat. And while I feel bad for them, this is *because rape is so prevalent* and *because women are still not respected* and *because many men have very bad attitudes to women* – and *because we know it can, has and does happen*. So while that’s difficult for men, it’s much more difficult for the women who need to walk around in a society where you have to be concerned about the threat of rape from men you know AND every time you walk down the street.
    I feel bad for the guys that pick up on my fear when I hear them approaching behind me, but nowhere near as bad as I do for women’s needs to constantly be on alert for the sounds of approach when out in public.

  55. It’s neither laziness nor a respect for how people react to a headline, it’s the entrenched values of patriarchy that put a woman at the centre of rape, rather than the perpetrator.

    Okay, now I’m getting it. I suspect the headline thing is probably just a by-product of this then. So, how do we un-entrench these values?
    It’s also interesting how women are told to behave in ways to protect ourselves, yet when it’s turned around to say – ‘women need to protect themselves because of potential rapists’, men get upset that we could possibly think of them that way. A rapist is supposed to be a scary weird person who couldn’t possibly be someone you interact with everyday, or even be one your(male)self because she said xxx, or she would have said xxx etc.

  56. “So, how do we un-entrench these values?”
    That’s the $64,000 question!
    “A rapist is supposed to be a scary weird person who couldn’t possibly be someone you interact with everyday”
    Which is a very good point, Mindy – because most women are raped by someone they know, not a scary stranger in the street. In fact by teaching girls “stranger danger” we are probably teaching them entirely the wrong lesson – we should be teaching them how to deal with someone they KNOW.

  57. It just struck me as I am in the middle of drafting a blog post about the critisisms of Sarah Palin’s decisions during her last pregnancy, that when we read about children being born, we have an opposite problem, where the woman disappears from the frame – think about headlines like Taxi driver delivers baby in car
    or Rookie taxi driver delivers baby in car
    and of course anything written about doctors delivering babies too – the woman who is actually the subject is reduced to invisibility.
    Rebekkas last blog post..Update to abortion post: an email from Senator Simon Birmingham

  58. In fact by teaching girls “stranger danger” we are probably teaching them entirely the wrong lesson

    Absolutely, and we are obviously going wrong somewhere with our boys, because it keeps happening.

  59. “we are obviously going wrong somewhere with our boys, because it keeps happening.”
    Although I think we need to teach girls to navigate patriarchy, I’m wary about what you mean by “we” in your second suggestion. I agree that clearly something is going wrong with boys, but if you’re referring to the people who raise individual boys, then I’d say it’s not so much that we’re going wrong, it’s that we are raising them in the context of patriarchy.

  60. Do you think it’s possible to raise them outside the context of the patriarchy, or does that bring us back to the $64 000 question?

  61. Not really possible, no, unless you live in complete isolation cut off from the world. What we can do is teach them to recognise the patriarchy – and navigate it.

  62. But that’s not happening, generally speaking. Yes, in feminist households, and possibly *some* others – but patriarchy and its many manifestations of violence doesn’t appear to be a topic of conversations in many households. Which is what I thought Mindy’s comment was getting at.

  63. I thought we were talking about what an *individual* could do to raise boys and girls who are aware of the patriarchy and how to navigate it, clearly this doesn’t happen in most households, or the patriarchy would stop being perpetuated, yes?

  64. Both really. What I can do personally so that my kids grow up recognising what the patriarchy is and how to work around it, but also what we as a society can do to stop the violence.

  65. Sorry Rebekka, that’s kind of what I was getting at – I think I’m trying to say the same sort of thing, but maybe interpreted Mindy’s point differently and therefor was coming at it from a different angle? I guess that my stance is that we are going wrong as a society precisely because in individual homes people are not talking to their kids about sex and bodies and respect for others and patriarchy and violence – that this kind of ‘Gosh, why would you raise that?’ kind of attitude means that we’re never dealing with the fact that it is ‘regular’ kids who are growing into ‘regular men’ and that some of these ‘regular kids/regular men’ will rape. So I guess kind of thinking that our individual families would be quite unique in our discussions of society/patriarchy/respect etc, but that we’re still kinda implicated? Not sure if I’m making it any clearer or not – have been home looking after my sick son and wading through High Court judgments – I’m a little foggy in the head right now.
    But in essence, yes, I agree – you can’t escape the effects of patriarchy, but you can discuss it, name it, and give your kids ways to navigate it.

  66. “because most women are raped by someone they know, not a scary stranger in the street.”
    This gets said a lot, and it’s even true. But it’s kind of a blow for women who actually have been raped or assaulted by a total stranger, and god knows there are plenty such women, because some versions (not this one) of the statement pointing out that most rapes are done by people known to the victim also go on to call the stranger kind a myth.
    “In fact by teaching girls “stranger danger” we are probably teaching them entirely the wrong lesson – we should be teaching them how to deal with someone they KNOW.”
    The whole point. Teach both boys and girls to treat themselves and other people with respect. Don’t teach girls how to construe themselves as potential victims.

  67. But it’s kind of a blow for women who actually have been raped or assaulted by a total stranger

    I think this is a really important point and also goes to what Rebekka was talking about on another thread: the importance of not obliterating, through our concentration on central themes(which are often validated by the usual patriarchal reliance on statistical measures), the narratives of women whose experience is not representative of a statistical,and therefore inherently believable,majority.
    I know I feel really ticked off when I see a circumstance which I experienced dismissed as an almost mythical occurrence.

  68. I don’t honestly see how saying one thing – most women are raped by someone they know – negates another – some women are raped by strangers.
    I certainly don’t think stranger rape is a myth. But in terms of where the focus of teaching girls how to navigate patriarchy (and by that I definitely don’t mean teaching them that they’re potential victims), the focus surely needs to be on the most likely risks?
    As far as I know, the focus when it comes to teaching kids safety is still ‘stranger danger’ – don’t talk to strangers, strangers are scary, strangers could hurt you.
    We don’t tell them what to do if someone they know gets them alone and touches them on parts of their body that are not for other people to touch. We don’t tell them what to do if an adult they know makes them feel uncomfortable. We don’t give them the tools they need to navigate these sorts of situations, which are far more likely than stranger danger type situations. And children need to be taught to trust their instincts about strangers as well as people they know.
    By saying that one situation is more likely than another, I’m not negating the other situation. And I do think there should be space to discuss both (and children need to be taught both). But the emphasis is currently weighted the wrong way.

Trackbacks

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